Mason selects partner for innovation project in Arlington

A conceptual rendering of the future digital innovation headquarters at George Mason University’s Arlington campus. (Mason Innovation Partners/EYP)

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Evolution rather than revolution is likely to be the watchword in coming decades at George Mason University’s Arlington campus.

The end result is likely to be “not a significant deviation” from the campus’s current uses, “just building on the strengths that are already there,” said Gregory Janks, a consultant engaged by Mason to lead the master-planning process for the university’s three main campuses.

“[The phrase] ‘stays the course’ under-sells it,” Janks said, since the campus already is on “a great, great path.”

His remarks came during a March 2 forum on the now-year-old facilities-planning process for the Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William (Sci/Tech) campuses of Virginia’s largest public university. By the fall, a refined set of proposals is expected to be deposited in the laps of university leaders.

Getting to that point involved “a complex choreography” that attempts to match current and future needs of the university with three very distinct campuses, Janks said.

“We want to make sure we’re building on that strength,” he said at the March 2 forum, which attracted more than 225 participants.

The Arlington campus, which dates to the late 1970s, includes mostly graduate courses in public policy, law and business, and is expected to see an increased emphasis on engineering and computer science programs with the opening, in 2025, of the planned 400,000-square-foot Institute of Digital InnovAtion as part of a public-private partnership.

The Arlington campus is located in the Virginia Square neighborhood of North Arlington, but Mason officials may look south – to the Columbia Pike and Green Valley communities – for possible expansion, as there could be federal funding available for revitalization efforts in “opportunity zones.”

Carol Kissal, senior vice president for finance and administration at the university, said Mason also might consider bringing student housing to the county. “We’re thinking about partnering” with government agencies and others in mulling the idea, she said.

The Arlington campus currently hosts about 2,000 Mason students in 800,000 square feet of academic space, a drop in the bucket compared to the 32,000 students and 6.4 million square feet of space on the Fairfax campus.

But at an earlier gathering in the planning process, Mason officials were candid that they needed to up their game in Arlington, as a host of other institutions of higher learning have been planting outposts in the county, perhaps spurred by the arrival of Amazon’s secondary headquarters in the Crystal City/Pentagon City area.

The facilities-planning process kicked off in the months before the COVID pandemic hit. The pandemic brought massive changes to education – some likely temporary, some possibly permanent, although educational leaders, like everyone else, have been working without a road map in developing a path forward.

Mason still expects student-body growth, although it already was slowing prior to the pandemic. Most recent projections suggest that Mason’s student body of just over 38,000 of 2020 would grow to slightly more than 40,000 in 2025 and then just under 43,000 by 2040.

Currently, Mason is heavily dependent on a catchment area of 18 Virginia counties and cities in the northern part of the commonwealth, which provides more than half its incoming freshmen and about 96 percent of students transferring from community colleges. About 75 percent of Mason graduates in recent years have been from Northern Virginia.

That heavy concentration of Northern Virginians gives the university opportunities to expand its reach outside the local area and into other parts of commonwealth, where Mason matriculants would still get the break of in-state tuition. Many downstate counties have just a handful of students currently attending Mason, according to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, with some, particularly in far southwest Virginia, having none at all.

But the challenge for university officials could be that, outside Northern Virginia, much of the commonwealth is seeing declining population, which could send the university scurrying for out-of-state and international students, as well as those willing to take online coursework from anywhere in the world.

At an earlier public forum, Janks had floated the possibility of a more aggressive expansion effort in Arlington. While that ardor may have cooled – at least based on the March 2 forum – nothing is yet set in concrete.

“I’m sure these thoughts will be refined,” Janks said.

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For information on the master-planning process, see the Website at https://bit.ly/3uPs4tt.

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